Game Preview | Western Semi-Final Vs. CGY
The regular season ride was a memorable one but it certainly came with more twists and turns than the classic Vancouver roller coaster that was about a 35-yard field goal try away from old Empire Stadium.
As time goes on, more people will likely look back and remember the great things about the Leos’ path back to the Grey Cup playoffs. Quarterback Nathan Rourke took the league by storm, a run that was highlighted by his brilliant comeback effort in a 41-40 win against their future playoff opponent the Calgary Stampeders in mid-August.
For the Lions and their fans, that is the type of offensive output they are craving for Sunday’s Western Semi-Final in front of an expected crowd of over 30,000 at BC Place.
After making his big return and seeing limited action in a week 21 loss at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the West Division Finalist for Most Outstanding Canadian is full-go and ready to go the distance as the squad eyes its first playoff victory since 2016. Might it be the start of a storybook Grey Cup chapter? There is first a pretty big hurdle standing in their way, but number 12 is ready to roll.
“Watching is never fun. To be actually doing stuff has been fun. I’ve really enjoyed feeling like a part of the team,” said Rourke during this weekend’s preparations.
“I think I’ll be able to do what I need to do to give the team the best shot to win. I think that’s the simplest way to say it. At this point of the season, everybody is dealing with something different. Nobody is feeling 100 per cent and I’m no exception. I think I’ve done enough and all the right things to be able to get to the point where I feel like me being out there is the best option.”
“He has looked good in practice,” added head coach Rick Campbell.
“We’re rolling with the guy. He has looked good in practice, I know he is excited to play, but I think he gets more comfortable as the day goes by, so we’re all looking forward to seeing him play on Sunday.”
When factoring in the entire team element, this will be an all-out heavyweight brawl on Sunday. Calgary comes in as the CFL’s highest-scoring team (31.2 PPG). They haven’t skipped a beat since handing their quarterback keys to Jake Maier, winning six of nine games and boasting perhaps the league’s finest offensive line to go with a stout run game anchored by rushing leader Ka’Deem Carey. The Stampeders will also dress Dedrick Mills who went for 100 or more yards in three of his six appearances this season.
That will be a major task in this contest, slowing down the run and forcing Maier to beat them through the air.
“We know those guys pretty well,” said Campbell.
“Good players, they’re well-coached and they’re going to be ready to go. They always force you to play well and beat them and we expect nothing different. Obviously, we’ve been spending a lot of time preparing for them but at the end of the day we’ve got to control what we can control, which is playing as good a football as we can play and when we do that, we’re a tough team to beat.”
As far as the Lions’ offensive aspirations go, Rourke will be given a huge boost with the return of top playmaker Bryan Burnham. That is extra key this week with Lucky Whitehead unable to go due to his lingering ankle injury. Everyone will be asked to step up and fill in the necessary voids.
“I think that the testament of a good team is when people go down, you have other guys that are stepping up and finding multiple ways to win games and that’s what we’ve done this year,” explained Rourke.
“We’ve got a lot of people to rely on and I think that it will be good heading into tomorrow.”
Burnham is just grateful for another shot at that elusive first Grey Cup ring, especially after going so long between playoff games at home.
“It’s just exciting to be back in this position, to host a playoff game,” said the playmaking receiver.
“First time since 2016. It feels like a lifetime ago, but as someone who has been there before and been to multiple playoff games, I’m just in a position where guys can come talk to me. ‘What’s it going to be like? How is the atmosphere going to be?’ It’s not too much, besides being the leader that I already am.
I can give guys a little comfort and just letting them know that atmosphere is going to be intense, it’s going to be exciting. But the type of guys we have in our room, especially in the receiving core, there are no rookies out there. We’re all vets. By the way, we’ve worked all season, man we’re all ready to go. I believe we all have the right mindset to go out there and put on a show.”
BC Lions (12-6-0 in the regular season) vs. Calgary Stampeders (12-6-0 in the regular season), Western Semi-Final
Sunday, November 6
1:30 pm PT
TV: TSN, RDS
Radio: AM730, Lions Audio Network
Season series: The Lions took two out of three regular season meetings between the two teams, prevailing in a 41-40 thriller on August 13 and 31-29 in overtime on September 17. Both of those wins were at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium. The Stampeders prevailed 25-11 at BC Place on September 24, making the road team a perfect three-for-three in the regular season between these clubs. The Lions will look to break that trend when it matters the most.
QB Nathan Rourke- need we say more? Prior to his foot injury, the Lions were 8-1 with Rourke under centre and the offence was able to play to his strengths. Jumping out to an early lead on an opportunistic Calgary defence will pay dividends. Rourke is primed to go the distance after playing three series in just over a quarter of action in Winnipeg last week.
WR Bryan Burnham- the highlight-reel machine’s last appearance was against these same Stampeders in the loss in late September. Proving his toughness, Burnham was in for another four plays after fracturing his wrist. Pro-rated to a full year, number 16 would have eclipsed 1,000 yards yet again. His presence in the lineup will be huge for both Rourke and the entire offence.
DLs Mathieu Betts and David Menard- with many of the forecasters anticipating a huge edge for Calgary’s run game, the defensive end duo of Betts and Menard can do their part by getting to Maier early and often. Menard led the Lions with ten sacks while Betts proved to be one of the squad’s most impactful free agent additions. The line of scrimmage battle will be huge.
DB Marcus Sayles- Look no further than the October 15 victory over Winnipeg where the Western All-Star returned an interception to the house to seal it. Sayles is a big-game player who will thrive off Sunday’s environment. The secondary will get a nice test with the return of Malik Henry and in facing the likes of Jalon Philpot, Reggie Begelton and company.
Time for a couple of historical anomalies as it pertains to this playoff matchup. 2022 marks only the fourth time in history that a Lions team has finished second in the West Division. In each of the previous three instances (1977, 1986 and 2016), Winnipeg was the opponent. Of the previous six Western Semi-Final meetings between the Lions and Stampeders, all six were played at McMahon Stadium and all were won by Calgary.
Of the 15 all-time playoff meetings between these two clubs, the only ones that were played in Vancouver were the 2012 and 1999 Western Finals at BC Place and the final two instalments of a best-of-three 1964 Western Final series at Empire Stadium. The Lions won the 1964 series 2-1 on route to the first Grey Cup in franchise history.
Rourke wound up breaking the all-time CFL record for completion percentage (minimum 250 attempts) with 78.7, beating the previous mark set by Ricky Ray in 2013 (77.2).
A fast start is key: the Lions opened the scoring in 13 of 18 regular season contests and posted a record of 11-2 in those games.
As per Lions’ historian and CFL head statistician Steve Daniel, these clubs are pretty much deadlocked when it comes to previous playoff experience. Calgary’s projected starting lineup has 47 previous games under their belt while the Lions have 45. The leaders for both teams are Joel Figueroa 9 (injured and not playing), Shawn Lemon 7, William Langlais 7, Bo Lokombo 6, Loucheiz Purifoy 6, and Derek Wiggan 6 GP.
As mentioned above, the Leos will need to establish some sort of edge on the line of scrimmage in order to be victorious. Over the three regular season meetings, the Stampeders recorded 11 quarterback sacks while the Lions fail to register just one. It’s an entirely new scenario this week.